The History of Eugenics isn’t as Historical as it Should Be

This morning the following tweet caught my attention

I can’t argue with the premise, eugenics and eugenic ideals are indeed alive and well. However the methods haven’t always gotten more sophisticated.

Back in the day when countries like Canada and the United States had openly eugenic policies. They were ostensibly meant to stop people, usually labelled feeble-minded (I use this word only because it was the term in use at the time) from having children. It was believed that traits like intelligence were genetic and if such people were allowed to continue having children that they would just be creating burdens for the state. Intelligence was also linked to criminality so they thought it would have an impact on the crime rate as well.

In practice people with disabilities were certainly targeted and suffered from being forcibly sterilized (and often institutionalization).

However because eugenics was based on the premise that intelligence was hereditary by association things like wealth and success were seen as evidence of genetic superiority. This lead to eugenics policies targeting people we would no longer consider disabled.

Basically eugenics was used as a way to pathologize poverty. Some of the people most likely to be targeted were poor women of colour.

Unfortunately this demographic is also still at risk of being targeted for forced sterilization.

Recently there have been a couple of cases in Saskatchewan that have come to light where poor women have been coerced into being sterilized. Often closely following the birth. One woman tells how she was told that she would not be allowed to leave the hospital until she agreed to the procedure (a threat often used historically against women in institutions).

As recently as 2010 prisons in California were sterilizing female prisoners. This is not as shocking (though utterly indefensible) when you consider that the 1927 sterilization case Buck v. Bell still holds legal precedent in the United Stated and has never been over turned (seriously Americans get on that).

Canada is however a different story, while we share the shameful history of forced sterilization it is supposed to be explicitly banned. The 1986 Supreme Court ruling in E (Mrs.) v. Eve set a precedent more progressive than any other country.

Using a citizenship model, the court found that Eve was a citizen of Canada and that none of her rights could be infringed upon regardless of her level of intelligence, including reproductive rights. The court was very specific, they rejected the idea that someone could be sterilized without consent if it was believed they might find symptoms of puberty distressing (such as menstruation). An argument that has worked elsewhere. Further they rejected Mrs. E’s argument that if Eve had a child that it would fall to her to care for and she should be protected from this potential burden. Effectively saying that potential burden was not a strong enough ground on which to infringe on the rights of someone else.

Basically nonconsensual sterilization is completely forbidden in Canada. The only exception being in cases of medical necessity. The thresh hold for medical necessity being a life threatening situation. So in theory in Canada a person can only be sterilized without consent if they meet both of two criteria. First that they are unable to consent to the procedure AND they may die if the sterilization doesn’t go ahead.

In reality as the cases in Saskatchewan show, this standard is not being followed. There are also cases involving patients under custodial care who have undergone the procedure because lower court judges dismiss the Eve case as being to far reaching.

The Saskatchewan cases clearly show that the 1986 ruling had it right (and it’s not because the victims aren’t disabled). Don’t believe me read the comments (or don’t I’m already scarred).

Basically, they boil down to two issues. People disregard the clear coercion involved and fixate on the fact that a permission form was signed. This is bad enough but then there are the people who make moral judgements about the women. They gripe about how many children she has and complain about the burden she is placing on the system. Basically they are recycling the old eugenic arguments that targeted poor women under the eugenics legislation that was repealed in 1972.

The reason the Eve ruling is so easily ignored whether the victim is disabled or just poor is because people find it all to easy to see people not like them as the “other” and rationalize clawing back hard won rights.

So while as the twitter comment above is right and some eugenic arguments have gotten more sophisticated (*cough* human genome project *cough*).

The old ones are alive and well and being argued in Canada (and likely elsewhere).


***For further information on eugenics see

Angus McLaren’s “Our Own Master Race

The National Film Board of Canada’s documentary “The Sterilization of Leilanie Muir

Leilanie Muir also has a memoir (though I haven’t had time to read it yet–PhD problems), “A Whisper Past

Add more in the comments, particularly anything from outside Canada please.


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